The new eastern span of the San Francisco Bay Bridge opens on Tuesday. It is so long overdue and mired in engineering mishaps that all public ceremonies marking the occasion have been postponed, if not outright canceled. That's a stark contrast to the mood when the original San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge opened on November 12, 1936.
That celebration lasted for five days. There were parades, aerial displays, and a procession led by the governor during the official opening.
It was a structure worthy of such attention. The new bridge was described in a live broadcast on NBC Radio as “the largest, longest, and greatest completed highway bridge in the world.”
That was a satisfying statement to make after critics of the operation said it would be impossible to complete. The tides were too strong, the wind too fierce. There was no bedrock to speak of for the pilings. And there were two earthquake faults nearby. No wonder the Bay had never been bridged.
It’s not that building such a structure hadn’t been considered. The first recorded suggestion was by San Francisco’s most beloved eccentric, Emperor Norton I, self-proclaimed Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. He issued a statement which appeared in the Pacific Appeal newspaper on March 23, 1872:
The following is decreed and ordered to be carried into execution as soon as convenient: That a suspension bridge be built from Oakland Point to Goat Island, and then to Telegraph Hill; provided such bridge can be built without injury to the navigable waters of the Bay of San Francisco.
It took over half-a-century to make it happen.
The project was welcome work in the midst of the Great Depression, employing more than 8,000 men. But it was hard work, day and night. Nearly 30 men lost their lives. There were rudimentary safety regulations, but they were often ignored.
Chuck Seim, a retired maintenance engineer, remembers men who worked on the bridge telling him, “If you showed any kind of fright, boy, they’d drum you off the bridge right then and there.”
Whatever it took, they got it done. The project was completed in just over three years, and within budget, opening six months ahead of schedule.
A U.C. Berkley oral history project is capturing the history and the majesty of the original bridge. Watch a sample below: